The first thing you notice about PV Sindhu, 17-year-old and world number 19, is her laughter. She laughs, rather giggles, without a care in the world. She laughs with the propensity of someone who’s having a lot of fun. And in a sense, it’s nice to see that the success on the badminton courts hasn’t killed the girl in her yet.
Even during tournaments, Sindhu will be flitting all over the arena, talking to every person imaginable, laughing, and generally being a bundle of energy. A behaviour that is in stark contrast to Saina Nehwal, who will sit in a corner, not talk to anyone and focus her attention on her next game.
One might turn around and say that this isn’t about Saina. It’s about Sindhu – but it can rarely be as easy as that. The two are destined to be rivals. Saina, at 22, is the star that everyone aims to beat. Sindhu, at 17, is just beginning her career but she’s already starting to push her senior, who also trains at the P Gopichand academy in Hyderabad.
Their attitudes reflect in their playing styles too.
“I like to attack,” says Sindhu. “I think I can use my height (she is tall at 5’10”) and that allows me to work angles. But I like to attack, I like to smash. I want to be the best. That’s my game.”
Ask her about Saina’s game and she is a little unsure about what she should say, and about what she can.
“There is one thing, though; she will never give up without a fight. That’s how she is – she will fight till the last point. Everything you throw at her will come back to your side and her half-smash is pretty good.”
Sindhu recently made it to the final of the Syed Modi GP, but it was by beating reigning Olympic champion and World No. 1 Li Xuerui of China in her own backyard at the China Open Super Series, that she made the world stand up and take notice of her. Till this point, she was a talented junior (ranked third in the world in juniors) but now she was a threat.
A knee injury – the first of her career – forced her to miss the World Juniors in Chiba, Japan. A win at the tournament, which was held in October-November 2012, would have catapulted her to instant fame and done her brand no harm too. But she was advised bed rest.
“I am perfectly fine now but at that point, the doctors advised me bed rest. There was swelling around the knee and I just did what the doctor asked me too,” said Sindhu.
It was a tough period for Sindhu. At the Gopichand academy, they call her the ‘All-Day’ player. They generally have five training sessions a day at the academy – and Sindhu is one of the few players who trains in all of them. Her recovery time is short and that allows her to play a lot more tournaments.
“Gopi Sir says that it is to build fitness. That’s just how the coaching is,” said Sindhu.
But for someone who likes to attack, fitness is crucial. You need not just power, but stamina as well because you are making the plays; you are looking to take charge. The genes probably help too. Sindhu’s parents, P. V. Ramana and P. Vijaya – have both represented India in volleyball and know what it takes to come up through the ranks.
“I just liked badminton. My sister plays netball but it was always badminton for me. I used to play at my house before my dad decided I was ready to play at a club. My initial training was under Mohammad Ali Sir,” Sindhu said.
And that initial training worked. She has won the national under-10, under-13, under-16 and under-19 titles.
“I have never lost in my age group. I would also participate in higher age groups. So sometimes, there would be a loss there, but it was valuable experience,” she said.
But things really started to change when she joined the Gopichand academy. She had to travel 27 kilometers one way – to reach the academy and at one point, she along with her parents decided that it was a little too much. So she stayed at the academy itself under Gopichand’s strict regimentation.
But for the last one-and-a-half years since her parents bought a house close to the academy, she has moved back home. That hasn’t disturbed her focus though.
For a long time, Saina spoke about how it seemed like she was waging a lone battle against the Chinese. But Sindhu’s presence should change that.
Today, the 17-year-old left for Korea and Malaysia to take part in Super Series tournament but the question for her remains the same: Can she beat Saina?
It’s a question that is asked in future tense because they have never EVER played a match against each other. Not in practice or at the Nationals or in any other tournament. Gopichand, for whatever reason, has kept them apart.
But something’s going to give soon – a rivalry that will enthral Indian badminton fans is going to take birth soon. And win or lose, Sindhu’s going to take it all with a smile because that’s the kind of girl she is.